Readings for the Twenty Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on November 13, 2016.
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
An egomaniacal, xenophobic and misogynistic tyrant rose to the highest office in the world’s most powerful country. Many uneducated and educated people believed that this tyrant was chosen to rule as the nation’s leader by God, including an educated man from Nottinghamshire. In fact, this educated man from Nottinghamshire, who earned a doctorate and married a woman named Joan, actually experienced this tyrant as quite charming and charismatic. However, even though this man respected and admired the tyrant, he struggled to come to terms with the tyrant’s fraught relationships with women. The country of which I speak is England, the tyrant is King Henry VIII and the educated man from Nottinghamshire is the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, the primary author of the original Book of Common Prayer of 1549; and also the author of this morning’s Collect prayer, which encourages us to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the holy Scriptures.
As Thomas Cranmer struggled to navigate King Henry VIII’s fraught relationships with women, he sought wisdom and guidance in the holy Scriptures, which he himself tried to prayerfully read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. In fact, he wanted all the people of England to read and inwardly digest the holy Scriptures, which is why he hired Myles Coverdale to publish the first English Bible authorized for public use, which was called the “Great Bible.” This “Great Bible” was distributed to every church in England so that everyone could finally hear the Bible in their mother tongue (thus fulfilling the dream of John Wycliff that the Bible be within reach of “every boy that driveth the plough”).
It is appropriate that this Sunday’s Collect invites us to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures, because Redeemer is now among the few Episcopal parishes in the world that includes in the pews a Holy Bible. So feel free to read and mark those Bibles throughout the service, even while I’m preaching. Unlike the Bibles in your pew, the “Great Bible” of Thomas Cranmer and Myles Coverdale was actually chained to the pulpit. I imagine this was done primarily to ensure that the Great Bible not be stolen, but also to provide some limitations upon who exactly could access and interpret these Holy Scriptures, which could be quite tricky and even perilous for readers who are not properly prepared or trained.
For example, the holy Scriptures were used to both condemn and defend Henry VIII’s behavior. Similarly, they have been used to justify atrocious acts of hate and violence as well as to inspire non-violent movements of love and liberation. In its simplicity, the Bible can indeed be accessible to a young child; but simultaneously, in its complexity, it can remain profoundly difficult and opaque, even for scholars who spend their lives studying it.
Pope Gregory the Great (who actually appointed the first Archbishop of Canterbury a thousand years before Thomas Cranmer) compared the holy Scriptures to a river in which a lamb may wade and an elephant can swim. In our recent election, both Republicans and Democrats used the Bible to defend their views and endorse their candidates, so today we might use political symbols to say that the Scriptures are like a river in which a donkey may wade and an elephant can swim.
In his own politically divisive time, Thomas Cranmer devoted himself to prayerfully studying these holy Scriptures. He saw the Scriptures being used and abused for political reasons and being wielded as a weapon of mass discrimination. Cranmer’s prayer for us was not that we wield the Bible as a weapon to justify slavery, racism, misogyny or violence. His prayer was that we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the holy Scriptures, that we allow the Scriptures to become a part of us, to form us as water forms rocks in a stream; that we allow the Scriptures to read us and to reveal to us our shadows and secret motivations.
Cranmer said, “In the Scriptures be the fat pastures of the soul; therein is no venomous meat, no unwholesome thing; they be very [refined] and pure [food]. He that is ignorant, shall find there what he shall learn.” But how do we properly digest these fat pastures of the soul?
This morning I want to offer one interpretive tool to help us read and inwardly digest the Scriptures. As Christians, we read the holy Scriptures in light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ; and in Christ, God reveals Godself to us as someone vulnerable and ultimately a victim to religious and political violence. In this way, God reveals Godself as loving, non-violent and always on the side of victims. So whenever we oppress and victimize others, we are working against God, we are oppressing and victimizing God. As Jesus said, “Whatever you do or do not do to the least of these, you do unto me.” God did not reveal Godself to us as Caesar, as a violent tyrant or victorious emperor but rather as a victim of imperial violence, betrayed by his friends and ultimately lynched. In fact, Jesus’s harshest criticism was against those who used religions and Scripture as a weapon to oppress and marginalize others. My favorite singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who died this week, followed in the same Jewish prophetic tradition of Jesus when he rejected those who used Scripture as a weapon of mass discrimination. He wrote, “I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd [. . .] the killers in high places [who] say their prayers out loud [. . .] They’ve summoned, they’ve summoned a thundercloud and they’re going to hear from me. Ring the bells that still can ring.”
In the Gospel this morning, Jesus warns us to steer clear from that lawless crowd and to not place our trust in impressive structures, in towers, and walls, again reminding us that God ultimately does not reveal Godself to us as a business tycoon or tyrant, but as a vulnerable human defending other vulnerable humans. Throughout all of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus reiterates his message and mission which he announces clearly at the beginning of his ministry: “I have come to proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
Jesus Christ, who is our guiding light for reading and inwardly digesting all of the holy Scriptures, explains that his mission is all about proclaiming good news and liberation to society’s victims. That is our lens for reading Scripture. The Gospel must be understood as good news for everybody, especially for those who are poor, marginalized and oppressed, otherwise it is not the Gospel. So whenever Jesus says or does something in the Scriptures that might appear, on the surface, to be unloving or oppressive towards victims, we are invited to read, mark, learn, inwardly digest and interpret the text more carefully and prayerfully. And whenever God says or does something in the Scriptures (especially the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament) that might appear to be violent and abusive towards victims, we are again invited to inwardly digest and interpret more carefully and prayerfully, in light of Christ’s explicit mission to protect and liberate the oppressed.
Likewise, our mission, as followers of Christ, is to defend the poor and the vulnerable, which is the primary message of our holy Scriptures. James, the brother of Jesus, writes, “Religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress,” to care for the vulnerable (James 1:27). This biblical message transcends any political party. God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Rather, God is deeply concerned with society’s victims (including the planet) and God calls us to protect and stand up for the vulnerable. And this is the work that our readings this morning call us to continue pursuing, especially when it is challenging and tiresome. Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” (2 Thess 3:13)
And Church of the Redeemer will not be weary in doing what is right. We will offer this place as a sacred space for meditation, reflection, spiritual transformation and inward digestion of the holy Scriptures, those “fat pastures of the soul.” We will continue to offer our meditation gatherings once a week and our Full Moon Labyrinth Walks once a month. (In fact, tomorrow, we will be offering both on the same night and I encourage you to come to one or both.) We will continue to serve the residents of the Tamalpais retirement community, the hungry guests at St. Vincent de Paul’s and the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy. We will continue our work in stopping hunger worldwide. And we will continue to educate and plant seeds of hope and compassion in the lives of young children at Redeemer preschool as well as in our own hearts as we gather here to pray, fellowship and receive spiritual nourishment in the bread and wine made holy.
We will continue to defend the vulnerable, including the people, the land and the water of Standing Rock ND and all those who are now especially vulnerable to hate, violence and bigotry, in the aftermath of a bitter and deeply divisive election season. By protecting the vulnerable, we will risk becoming vulnerable ourselves. And we will continue to fulfill Thomas Cranmer’s prayer as we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the empowering and comforting words of Jesus, who promises us that “not one hair of our head will perish and by our endurance we will gain our souls.” May we endure, embrace and ever hold fast to that most blessed hope of everlasting life, in which our souls and God become one in love. Amen.